Response to comments on Life without Lead

It is both a vexing challenge and a special privilege to write and publish a book. To have first-rate scholars and scholar-activists carefully read, digest, and reflect upon it makes me humbled and deeply grateful. So my first comment is one of gratitude to my four colleagues who took the time and effort to engage so thoughtfully and generously with my book. I offer a special thanks to Andrés Romero, my dear former student and eminently creative, first-rate scholar himself, for the invitation to engage with me and us in this forum.

The rest of my commentary is focused on Josiah Rector’s invitation to think more explicitly and deeply about what I see as my book’s contributions to environmental justice (EJ) scholarship, coupled with Mariana Achugar’s questions on the politics, potentials and pitfalls of scholarship-activism. On a first level, as Rector notes, my book contributes a case study of environmental justice in the urban global South, still a perplexingly neglected arena of English language scholarship. A perhaps counterintuitive angle that I highlight in the book is the Uruguayan case’s frustrating redundancy, so to speak, in relation to the global history of lead. Rector identifies parallels with Detroit, Roberts with Mexico City, Auyero with Buenos Aires. The sources and pathways of exposure, including paints, plumbing and industrial emissions in Detroit, lead-glazed cookware in Mexico, petrochemical pollution in Buenos Aires, are all layered on top of other formal and informal, legacy and emergent industrial sources, hazardous dumping in myriad forms, and the toxic blanketing of leaded gasoline combustion. Industry, infrastructure, consumption, and waste: the toxic trail of lead, “mother of all industrial poisons” (Markowitz and Rosner 2002), rings and engulfs us all.

In the United States, recent developments in Flint, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey remind us of lead’s stubborn and criminal redundancy as a toxic pollutant. Children are particularly vulnerable, and the poor (oftentimes of color) find themselves in greater harm’s way, with heightened difficulty in combating and mitigating the effects of toxic exposure. So people (sometimes) mobilize, forging alliances with outside groups and experts, waging struggle on discursive, symbolic, medical and institutional-political grounds. This is the universal story of lead as an environmental justice issue across the global North and South. The Uruguayan case demonstrates the need to think through particular environmental justice cases globally and historically, and in the analytical terms of connection rather than difference.

But of course the specificities also matter. In the face of most environmental health crises like lead poisoning, people do not systematically and collectively rise up. They may remain oblivious to the sources of their suffering. Perhaps medical professionals do not run the appropriate tests, or public health officials and environmental regulators do not make recognition and mitigation of environmental contamination a priority. Or people do not collectively organize because “getting by” and enduring “structural ferocity” (Wilkinson and Kleinman 2016) is hard enough. Or maybe they cannot find meaningful political allies and advocates. The “slow violence” (Nixon 2011) of environmental suffering then becomes routinized and normalized, another hardship and consequence of being poor. Collective movements towards environmental justice are the exception rather than the rule. As scholars and activists it is essential then to try to understand the processes, mechanisms and conditions by which routinized toxic contamination is made publicly visible, turned into a collective “toxic event.”

In my book, I highlight an urban working-class vision of environmental justice led by squatters, working-class people, and old anarchists and labor organizers united with journalists, doctors, scientists, and other professionals. As the legacies of civil rights activism fueled African American and Latino involvement in the U.S. EJ movement, I argue that radical labor struggles and the anti-dictatorship resistance movement served as the foundational legacies of Uruguay’s nascent EJ movement. In the industrial working class neighborhood of La Teja, long a radical stronghold and mirror to Montevideo’s dominant middle class ethos of measured compromise, radical politics mixed with community-building in athletic and social clubs, soup kitchens, grassroots community media centers, and the rich traditions of Carnival. I use the Carnival genre of murga as a prefigurative model and poetic surrogate for the political, symbolic and performative dimensions of environmental justice struggle in La Teja. Lead poisoning became a toxic event, I argue, because activists were able to tap into the already-existing dense networks of social and political organization in La Teja, and because of the ways it linked up symbolically and metaphorically with fundamental social, economic and political issues confronting Uruguayan society at the turn of the millennium.

As other scholars of environmental justice have argued, these movements serve as a means and a platform from which to stake broader moral claims about the world. More than just reacting against toxic exposures, they can be movements of possibility. As an ethnographer of environmental justice struggle, I see my role as an echoer and ally of this movement. Approaching environmental justice research as a form of accompaniment is both a political choice and a methodological strategy. As I highlight in the book, my access “to” the CVSP activists was conditioned by my participation “with” the movement. Acting as a scholar-activist opened doors that would have otherwise remained impenetrable. It may also have closed other doors, but ultimately it was the ethical choice I found both necessary and urgent.

As EJ movements powerfully and morally frame the environment in relation to life, labor, place, and home, they should be recognized as an effective and prefigurative political model for how to recognize and combat all kinds of other social problems, including the “sleeping” environmental issues highlighted by Achugar in Uruguay. I see environmental justice as a broadly “undisciplined” arena of political strategy and academic scholarship. It breaks down disciplinary confines and the conventional borders between scholarship and activism, global and local, North and South, body and environment, history and present. An undisciplined environmental justice activism pushes the need for an open, holistic, creative, and undisciplined approach to EJ scholarship as well.[i] The first intention of my ethnography was to grasp the richness and depth of local worlds. But I also wanted to show how local dialects of environmental justice struggle resonate with a more universal language that moves back and forth from slow violence and structural ferocity, to cultural creativity, resilience, and hope.



Comaroff, John. 2010. “The End of Anthropology, Again: On the Future of an In/Discipline,” American Anthropologist 112(4): 524-538.

Markowitz, Gerald E., and David Rosner. 2002. Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wilkinson, Iain, and Arthur Kleinman. 2016. A Passion for Society: How We Think About Human Suffering. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Daniel Renfrew is associate professor of anthropology at West Virginia University. He is a faculty member of the Sectorial Commission of Scientific Research on Anthropology and the Environment at the Universidad de la República (Uruguay), and Associate Editor of the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. His research interests crosscut environmental, critical medical, and urban anthropologies. His research, based in South America and the United States, explores three general themes: 1) toxics, health and environmental justice; 2) the political ecology of resource extraction; and 3) environmental knowledge and subjectivity.



[i] See the recent declaration from the Undisciplined Environments political ecology collective for a similar argument: I also take inspiration from John Comaroff’s call (2010, 532) to embrace anthropology as an “immanently undisciplined discipline… an indiscipline whose conceptual foundations and techniques of knowledge production have almost infinite potential to open up new horizons.”





One Response to Response to comments on Life without Lead

  1. Pingback: Book Forum: Daniel Renfrew’s Life Without Lead: Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay | Somatosphere

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